Carmen Maria Machado: In the Dream House

Reading this book at the same time as the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya stories was a bit of an emotional challenge, I admit. This is a memoir about a very painful period in the author’s life, while being in an abusive lesbian relationship. Although, on the surface, it doesn’t seem quite as extreme and bleak as the physical and mental abuse Petrushevskaya’s characters have to go through, the description of the insidious nature of control and cruelty in a relationship is perhaps even more chilling. In other words, the gap between what Petrushevskaya describes and what I know seems too wide, so it is easier to accept that as fiction. Machado, however, gives voice to moments I recognise all too well – and that is unnerving.

I also liked the way she circles around the topic, presenting the Dream House (or dream relationship) as a series of metaphors, introducing conceits such as references to anthropological or folklore studies, choose your own adventure pages, or writing in the style of a noir novel, murder mystery, Bildungsroman. In an interview, she said that this was the only way she could write a memoir about this subject. However, I have to admit that it was not quite as experimental and whacky as I expected it to be (and almost wanted it to be): the affair was described in roughly chronological order, and there were no wildly different chapters stylistically speaking. Nevertheless, it was cleverly done, allowing for more inferred meaning, more emphasis on certain horrific moments, than a ‘tell it all’ traditional kind of memoir could have achieved.

Machado is so good at showing that people who stay in a bad relationship need not be stupid, deluded, cowardly or anything that people who have never been in such a position blithely throw at them. She was young and not overly confident, she felt lucky ‘as a weird fat girl’ to attract such a desirable partner. She felt pity for the hurt in the other person which made her lash out against others. She kept believing in the periods of remorse and nice gestures: ‘People settle near volcanoes because the resulting soil is extraordinary’. Above all, because abuse in lesbian relationships is seldom mentioned, she lacks the language to describe (or even recognise) that this is abuse.

This is not really a review. Below, I’ve chosen a few of the quotes that really stuck with me:

What is placed in or left out of the archive is a political act, dictated by the archivist and the political context in which she lives.

You have spent your whole life listening to your father talk about women’s emotions, their sensitivity. He never said it in a bad way, exactly – though the implication was always there. Suddenly you find yourself wondering if you’re in the middle of evidence that he’s right.

I always thought the expression ‘safe as houses’ meant that houses were safe places… but house idioms and their variants, in fact, often signify the opposite of safety and security… House of cards, writing is on the wall, glass houses… Safe as houses is something closer to the house always wins. Instead of a shared structure providing shelter, it means that the person in charge is secure; everyone else should be afraid.

A reminder that abusers do not need to be, and rarely are, cackling maniacs. They just need to want something and not care how they get it.

She is always trying to win. You want to say to her: We cannot advance together if you are like this. Love cannot be won or lost; a relationship doesn’t have a scoring system. We are partners, paired against the world. We cannot succeed if we are at odds with each other. Instead you say: Why don’t you understand?

When I was a child, my parents loved to refer to me as melodramatic or, worse, a drama queen. Both expressions confused adn then rankled me. I felt things deeply, and often the profound unfairness of the world triggered a furious, poetic responde from me… Why do we teach girls that their perspectives are inherently untrustworthy? I want to reclaim those words. That is what I keep returning to: how people decide who is or is not an unreliable narrator.

You know, this little hobby of yours has gone too far. Why can’t you for once do something for me?

In the pit of it, you fantasize about dying. Tripping on a sidewalk and stumbling into the path of an oncoming car… Anything to make it stop. You have forgotten that leaving is an option.

When it started, I believed I was special. It was a terrible thing to discover that I was common, that everything that happened to me – a crystalline, devastating landscape I navigated in my bare feet – was detailed in books and reports, in statistics. It was terrible because I wanted to believe that my love was unique and my pain was unique, as all of us do.

January Is Good for Thrillers

When the nights are long and cold, what could be better than to snuggle up with very dark, unsettling thrillers?  No? Maybe it’s just me then… And I don’t even feel the compulsion to check that all windows and doors are locked afterwards.  Well, not more than two or three times, anyway!

I will spend more time reviewing the Marseille Trilogy (which is part of my Global Reading Challenge) in a later post, but here are some other suspenseful thrillers I read this month.  My scoring system is perhaps overly strict: 5 star is something that only a handful of books ever, ever get; 4 star means I think you should really, really get your hands on it; 3 stars means it’s a good, solid, enjoyable book; and 2 is OK, average, nothing out of the ordinary.  At least you know you won’t get a waterfall of meaningless 5 stars here! 

1) Chris Ewan: Safe House

The only book I have come across so far set on the Isle of Man, it makes good use of its location (the isolation, the village gossip).  It starts with a simple puzzle, which then develops into a very convoluted plot. Plumber and part-time motor racing champion Rob Hale has a bad motorcycle accident.  He is concerned about the fate of his beautiful blonde co-rider, Lena, whom he had just recently met on an emergency boiler repair job in a remote cottage in the forest. However, the paramedics and police assure him that he was the only person found at the scene of the accident.  He is convinced he did not imagine the girl and uncovers a very complex tale of conspiracy.  The twists and turns keep on coming – some of them I guessed fairly early on (I have a bit of a phobia of secret services and can spot them coming from miles away), others did catch me by surprise.  The story does have rather brutal scenes, and the author seems to enjoy giving blow-by-blow accounts of horrific events.  Cleverly done, exciting to read, but a bit too vivid for my squeamishness.  My favourite bits were the more domestic scenes with Rob’s Granddad and dog. 3 stars.

2) Quentin Bates: Cold Comfort

This is the second rather than the first book in the series set in Iceland, featuring Sergeant Gunnhildur (a.k.a. Gunna). But that doesn’t matter at all: it’s all about atmosphere and characters in this series.  Gunna is tasked with two cases simultaneously: the manhunt for an escaped convict, and the murder of a gorgeous TV presenter.  She soon begins to suspect that the two events may be related.  Set against a backdrop of the near-total collapse of a country, together with its banking system, the story is a fast-paced, enjoyable read. This is not Scandinavian noir, but has a very tongue-in-cheek English humour about it (the author is English, although he lived for many years in Iceland).  Gunna is a delightful, down-to-earth character, a refreshing change from all the tormented detectives and heavy drinkers populating the northern hemisphere.  The many complicated (and similar-sounding) Icelandic names may pose a bit of a memory challenge, but it was a fun, easy read for an afternoon of similar meteorological conditions to Icelandic winters. 3 stars.

3) Pascal Garnier: The A26

You may remember that Pascal Garnier was one of my major discoveries for 2012.  I completely fell in love with two of his novels translated and published by Gallic Books: ‘The Panda Theory’ and ‘How’s the Pain?’  So I was very much looking forward to the third book that Gallic are just about to launch: they kindly sent me an advance copy. However, this one was a bit of a disappointment.  Although it is still impeccably translated and beautifully presented by the publisher, the story itself did not captivate me as much as the previous two.  Yet, to all intents and purposes, this one fits more neatly into the ‘thriller’ category.  There are more bodies, there are strange characters, there is suspense…  But there is less humour than in his other books and I found myself unable to care deeply for the two main characters, the agoraphobic Yolande and her long-suffering brother Bernard.  Perhaps if I had read this one first, I might have enjoyed it more: it certainly has all of the other Garnier characteristics I enjoy: the noir feel, the effortless and fluid style.  But I suppose my expectations were so high, that this one just could not live up to them. 3 stars.

4) Elizabeth Haynes: Into the Darkest Corner

This was the scariest of the thrillers I read this month.  It proves that scary can be done in a much more subtle and chilling way, because the atmosphere turns darker gradually, much like Cathy’s relationship with Lee.  The descriptions of domestic abuse and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are so realistic, so gruelling, yet they never feel gratuitous.  Certainly not a book to read when you are alone in the house!  The multiple  time frames and similarity of set-ups did puzzle me a little at first, but you soon get into the rhythm of things.  A psychological mind-twister and page-turner, I was hooked, even though I kept thinking I knew what would happen next.  It also shows just how complicated abusive relationships can be, and makes us question how we would react ourselves in a similar situation.  Hard to believe this is a debut novel, as it feels very accomplished and self-assured. 4 stars.